July 08, 2008

FriendFeed's Changing Tapestry of Users, Nine Months In

Ever run into somebody who doesn't like the new crowd, and wishes they could turn back the clock to "the way it used to be" before all the new guys showed up? It's a theme I've seen repeatedly played out from Web forum to Web forum and social network to social network. As I touched on in May in Just Like High School: Your Blogging Clique Will Move, online relationships change amazingly fast, and the environment on a site can be dramatically different in a matter of months, better for some, less so for others. In the nine months I've used the service, I can easily say this is absolutely the case with FriendFeed.

FriendFeed burst on the scene in October of 2007, highlighted in the New York Times, and TechCrunch. I joined two weeks later, and by the end of the month, I had highlighted the service, saying "the site is currently in beta, and ramping up, having been started by a few notable ex-Googlers."

By November, the small team added services that extended it beyond its initial stage as an aggregator. I wrote, "I first became interested in Friendfeed as the service could aggregate friends' Web activity in a single place. But in recent weeks, it's grown to be much more." And by the following month, I made 10 suggestions for the site, more than half of which have already been implemented.

February saw a rollout of statistics that showed who I followed most frequently, and who followed my items. As you can see from the chart, at the time, there was a lot of overlap between who I followed closely and who followed me, largely due to FriendFeed's small base. (This overlap is no longer common)

Even then, the site was still primarily made of friends of the founders, all of whom hailed from Google. Participating with people there at FriendFeed's earliest stages meant often getting some great insight into how Google worked, the stresses and benefits of working at one of the most successful, most secretive companies, and hearing about how some prominent projects got started. Kevin Fox himself even called it "a small beta site filled with a small group of friends". But by mid-February, some of these conversations escaped FriendFeed and gained notice elsewhere, making some become less candid.

On February 25th FriendFeed opened up, and everything changed. The open doors meant new users by the tens of thousands, and not just geeks any more, let alone such a high mix of former Googlers. The exclusivity, closeness and camaraderie some of us early users felt had been eroded. While some retreated away from the new noise, others, like me, embraced it, and engaged with the new crowds. This choice made my feeds especially "noisy", and some of the people I had befriended in FriendFeed's early months quickly unsubscribed. For every Jess Lee, Lilly Irani and Paul Buchheit who remained connected, I saw others, like Dan Egnor and Adam Lasnik, turn away.

Personally, seeing the original users I had engaged with for months unsubscribe as my feeds got more busy was frustrating, but they were supplemented by louder advocates, like Steve Rubel, Thomas Hawk and Robert Scoble, who brought their own perspective into the community. In their wake came a new mix of people focused on blogging and social media. Now, instead of talking about the innards of Google, conversations became very social media-centric, debating FriendFeed's potential or moving away from Twitter. As FriendFeed's numbers began to swell, many became obsessed, as is common in all networks, with the tabulation of stats, gaining followers, and measuring activity. It's something many of us wanted, but something we also knew would have a downside, as the jockeying for position would at times distract from the original goal, of sharing information and activity on the Web with friends.

Now, instead of internal Googlers debating puff pieces on the company, a broader spectrum of bloggers and Web enthusiasts can be found talking trends, technology news, sports and business. Instead of a small clique of acquaintances referring to each other by first name and trading perspective on shared events, you have many people engaging in longer conversations with fellow users where FriendFeed was their first interaction. And while many believe the site, at this phase, is still too heavily overweighted with early adopters and geeks, we can already see change. In late May, a post I had on where people get their sports news got dozens of comments. The site has become a repository for baby announcements and pictures, and silly food concoctions. In effect, it's beginning to resemble the real world, one where people watch sports, eat and have families, outside of their jobs and their computers.

It might have been fun to keep the friend circle small, to talk shop about Google Maps, Google Reader, GMail and Google search strategies. I enjoyed getting to know some of the Googlers a little better at the end of 2007 and beginning of this year, but with them fading into the background and being less prominent, I've met a lot of new voices I never would have found, including the vast majority of "obscure" blogs I've highlighted over the last six months. While some continue to debate whether one service will kill another, or what it will take to bring a product into the mainstream, I can easily say as one of the most visible and active users, the population has changed, away from an eclectic group of uber-engineers to something more recognizable: peers of all backgrounds. It should be interesting to see just what the service looks like by the end of the year, or next June. Could be dramatically different again.